Cancer. Depression. Prison. Anxiety. Anorexia. Addiction. Autism Spectrum.
No matter the illness, diagnosis, or challenging behavior… when a family has a child who demands more parental attention than others, it can cause lifelong damage to family relationships – IF – parents don’t take steps to validate the experience and acknowledge the needs of the siblings.
Parents I’ve worked with in the past have told me that being the parent of a child who is unwell or has challenging behaviors is “overwhelming and often feels impossible to get it ‘right’. I need to be there for him constantly, and as a result, I feel like I neglect his sisters”.
I’ll hear things like:
“If I’m not in hospital with her, I want to be sleeping or with my other kids. But when I’m at home, I feel guilty I’m not in the hospital.”
“His explosive meltdowns are so deafening it’s like the entire family must revolve around him. Everything is a drama for him, so we’re constantly devoting 80% of our attention just to manage and try to prevent an outburst.”
I’ve worked with clients who either were the ‘sick kid’ or the sibling of a child who was sick / needing a lot of parental attention.
The common stories for both revolve around frustration, anger and shame.
If a primary caregiver is regularly absent or preoccupied because they’re caring for a child who requires a lot of attention, it often breeds resentment and fuels feelings of abandonment for other children in the family.
Those feelings of anger are so complex to navigate. The child often feels shame for being angry at their sick sibling.
The key thing is to understand that kids gauge our love based on how much time we spend with them.
Children who don’t receive as much attention from their parents because they have a sibling with high needs, will often feel that “mom and dad loved my brother more. They always dropped everything to be there for him”.
Children attach their own worth and value to the amount of time their parents spend with them.
I’ve worked with parents as well, who feel angry at times towards their child, for all the attention they require and their inability to be with their other children. The anger can morph into shame and a very messy and complicated emotional response.
The entire situation is incredibly complex and children often carry deep shame towards themselves, and unconscious anger at their siblings for ‘disrupting’ their childhood, ‘taking mom away’ or ‘making me feel terrified my brother was going to die’.
A client once told me, “My brother was stuck in hospital, fighting for his life, and all I could think at age 7 was how much I missed my mom, and how angry I felt at him for being sick and making dad miss all my cricket games.
“I felt so confused, angry and ashamed of my emotions. I had nobody to talk to. I mentioned it to my mom once and she just got angry and shamed me even further. I didn’t want to burden them, so I just stuffed all my feelings inside, burning with resentment at everyone, and shame at myself for even being angry.”
These feelings are amplified as children grow, with parents leaving them unaddressed or lacking the capacity to acknowledge their other children’s emotions.
If you have a child who requires a significant amount of your attention, either because they’re unwell, or are challenging, and suspect this scenario may be playing out in your household, then you don’t want to miss this Q&A call.